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A fire at an Islamic school in Yangon killed 13 children in the early hours of Tuesday in what officials said could have been an accident, but comes in the aftermath of a wave of violence against Muslims in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.
The children, all boys, suffocated after the fire broke out in a dormitory of the school next to a mosque in the central, multi-ethnic Botataung district of the former capital at about 2:40 a.m. (2010 GMT on Monday), neighbors and officials said.
A Central Fire Service duty officer contacted early on Tuesday blamed the fire on the overheating of a transformer but officials said later they were still investigating the cause.
”We extinguished the fire this morning but we don't know the root cause of it yet. There are a lot of rumors coming out and concern over this,” fire department official Myint Aung said outside the school.
Armed riot police cordoned off the area, where a peaceful crowd had gathered by mid-morning. According to official records, electrical faults and overheating are major causes of fires in Yangon.
But many Muslims were “very suspicious” about the causes of the fire, said Mya Aye, a Muslim member of the 88 Generation Students' pro-democracy group.
“We are worried and sad because innocent children died,” he said. A funeral for the 13 boys was due to be held on Tuesday afternoon. Yangon, by far the biggest city in Myanmar, escaped the anti-Muslim violence in March although the authorities posted police outside mosques and ordered restaurants in some areas to close early on some evenings as a precaution.
Officially, 43 people died in the Buddhist-led violence, which erupted in Meikhtila town in the centre of the country on March 20 and included the fire-bombing of mosques.
It spread to at least 15 other towns and villages until President Thein Sein ordered soldiers and police to crack down on the unrest.
Neighbors and witnesses in the Botataung area said the doors to the dormitory of the school may have been locked due to security concerns after the violence in March and the windows were barred.
“These children were about 13 or 14 years old. They died because they couldn't jump out of the windows, which were closed by iron bars,” said Ye Naung Thein, a bystander.